The mountains rose around him in sharp peaks. It was nearing twilight. The sun had painted the mountains and forest in red and yellow and was showing its final colors before it faded to black. Silas Forster huffed as he walked up a small steep path. The loose dirt puffed around his shoes.
His real mission was to load the mule with wood to take back to the village. His master, the town’s blacksmith, needed a large amount of wood to repair pots, pans, knives, and plows for the villagers. Not every village had a blacksmith. Badendorf was richer than most. Or at least that was what his master said. Silas wouldn’t know. He had never left the village.
It was the first time his master had let him go by himself in the dark forest to collect the wood. Usually the blacksmith would hire him out to the woodcutter. Silas, he would say, was too scrawny to ever be blacksmith. Silas wondered why he did not just sell his apprenticeship to the woodcutter. The blacksmith was too busy with his work to answer Silas’ question. He would tell him that he had promised his mother. He would hold his mouth tight like he was keeping a secret. Who knew what the blacksmith knew? Silas believed that he just wanted to keep the apprenticeship money. But what did Silas know. He never met his parents. He had been apprenticed almost before he was born.
Silas continued trudging up the path, breaking the tree limbs that slashed at him. He looked closely for the mule’s tracks. He would deserve a twitching this time if he did not find the mule. Although coming back without wood would probably be a night without supper. And, he would deserve it.
He trudged. Brown hair, brown eyes, and skin browned by the sun. Silas would have looked like another villager if it wasn’t for his height. He stood almost a foot over the tallest man in the village. The blacksmith gave him a hat and told him to slouch. Silas found this funny. The other apprentices were told to walk straight and tall. And, he was supposed to slouch. Although the slouch made him look shorter than the other men of the village, after the last growth spurt his pants had crept up his shins. And despite his slouch he was actually taller than most of the men. It was better not to be noticed.
The trail greens and browns started to bleed to gray. Silas looked up at the sky. The sun was slowly sinking in the west. Darn. He needed to find that mule. Who knew what kind of creatures crept around here after dark. Not only were there large cats and wolves, but there were also magical creatures that liked to creep in the dark forest. The forest was kind to dark dwellers. Silas did not want to be caught in it.
The last villager who had been caught after dark was found almost a mile from the village. His throat had been chewed through. Any animal with those teeth and claws should be feared. After this incident the children were told to stay indoors when the sun went down. Stay in doors. We don’t know what kind of monsters are sniffing around out there. Then the adults would glance at each other and look away.
Silas knew from the looks that the adults had a secret and it involved him. But Silas was big enough now to take care of himself. Even the blacksmith had agreed that he was strong enough and big enough to handle most predators.
The leaves near the path rustled behind him. Silas never heard the rustles or even looked toward the bushes. He was sure that he would see an ambush coming. In fact, Silas fantasized about hitting a stick or a sword. A sword would be fine. The blacksmith had made one or two. The sword’s edge had gleamed when the blacksmith inspected it in the sunlight. Silas wanted, really wanted to learn how to cut and parry. How to fight with its bright edge. But once again the men looked at each other and then hid the sword in the back of the blacksmith’s cottage, covered in a blanket. To have such a creation covered in something so mundane, Silas almost cried at the thought.
Silas walked a little faster. He could almost hear the mule’s footsteps as it stopped then started. If he walked just a little faster that he would have his hands on that recalcitrant beast.
Suddenly, Silas felt a net of pure energy envelop him. Where the energy touched his skin, he felt a burning fire. He screamed. In the corner of his eyes, he could see a dark figure approached.
As Silas fell, the sky turned from blue to gray to black. Well, well he heard in his head. A prince.
The back, side, and temples of Silas’ head exploded with pain as he gained consciousness.
“Where am I?” he moaned. He was tied, face down over his mule. He tried to open his eyes. The last bright burst from the day scorched them.. He moaned again, closing his eyes.
“Ah,” said a smooth male voice. “The prisoner is awake.” Silas could smell a sulpher smell like brimstone. The mule stopped. The stranger cut the ropes that held Silas to the mule. He fell. He was still a prisoner in his body because the bonds of the energy net kept him from moving.
He tried to lift his head so that he could look at the stranger. “Where am I? Who are you? Why am I here?”
The stranger lifted Silas to his feet. The man had a small downturned mouth in a face that had no wrinkles. The site of his face scared Silas enough that he started to tremble. How could a man age, but not age? The man showed his teeth in a parody of a smile. Silas shook harder. It was like facing a starving wolf.
“You are in the northern mountains above the Ahrah. You will make a suitable sacrifice. I am Rhali,” said the man. Rhali dragged him to a tree in a small clearing next to a gurgling stream. He lifted Silas onto a thick overhanging branch, then began to wrap a rope around Silas and around the tree. Over and under.
“While you were unconscious,” Rhali said. “I bound a piece of your spirit to mine. Anything that happens to me will happen to you.” He lifted an eyebrow. “If I die, you die. Unfortunately for you, the spell does not work the other way. I will not die if you kill yourself.” Rhali laughed.
Silas felt the hard bounds of the rope and tree. He felt the burning energy of Rhali’s net. His heart thudded. His stomach clenched.
“Why?” he asked. As if such a monster would answer a simple question, but Silas wanted to know what his death would accomplish.
“Oh, I need you alive now,” said Rhali. “You are meant to be a sacrifice. You will never know how good a sacrifice.” He hummed to himself as he completed trussing Silas to the tree.
“Don’t look down,” warned Rhali.
Silas felt that this was an unnecessary warning. He would have to strain his neck around the branch to see what was below him. If the ropes broke… he whimpered.
He felt rather than saw Rhali leave. The bark scratched against his cheek. He heard the whirl of the grasshoppers and the cry of a night hunter.
The moon rose, as beautiful as a young girl. It was round. It’s light glowed into the clearing. It was then that he felt the itching around his collar and face. To his horror, he knew that his hair was growing. He watched his bound hands change from human hands to paws with razor sharp claws. When he tried to cry, a howl burst from his lips. Too much. Too much. Too much.
The sun shone into his eyes—a new day. Silas woke to a violent headache. He sighed. Silas was still trussed up to the tree. Below he saw a horse and the mule munching on the short grass. Silas could almost touch Rhali’s gelding.
The ropes around his wrists were frayed. He jerked and jerked until the ropes broke. The rope slid down and he fell with them onto the ground. At the base of the tree was a note: “Bring the horse, mule, and backpack, and meet me at Hound’s Quarry.”
Silas watered the animals. He tied the horse and mule to the tree and rubbed them down. He put the backpack on the mule, saddle on the horse, and climbed onto the horse. He wasn’t used to riding something this big. Small villages usually had mules or feet. They couldn’t afford better transportation.
His options were racing through his mind. If he ran back to the village, Silas could expect that thing—Rhali to follow him and maybe kill many of his friends. Or he could follow calmly like a steer raised for beef. He did have a third option. He could plan. It was a long way to Hound’s Quarry.
He kicked the horse in the flanks and started up the trail.
The next few days gave Silas the time to think. It was an impossible situation, but there was always a way around it. He knew from experience that if his master the blacksmith told him that he had to have the wood cut by dusk that he had enough wiggle room to disappear into the forest for a half hour or so. Some days he had some time to himself. It was just a matter of listening and reinterpreting the instructions.
Each night at sundown Rhali would appear, demand food, and tie Silas to a tree. He would then disappear to some unknown location. Every morning Silas broke the ropes, read Rhali’s note, and finished the chores and then continued his journey.
After the third day, Silas reached Hunter’s Quarry, but even then without spending time traveling, he never seemed to have enough time to finish his tasks. Always it took the whole day to accomplish even the simplest task. Sometimes he did not remember completing the list. Once he read Rhali’s note, he lost control of his only defense—his mind.
The day Silas woke up with a rabbit’s heart clutched in his hand was the day he took control. After wiping his hand in the dirt, and then washing them in the stream, he took inventory. He had his mind—sometimes. He had his hands, his backpack, his clothes, and his mule. Well, he was rich. Snort. He had no idea of the layout of the Quarry. No idea what kind of hiding places were around him. He knew that he was getting closer and closer to the sacrificial time, but he didn’t seem to care. Now. Today. He needed to care.
First, tomorrow, he would not read the note until he had searched the entire place. Today was too late. He needed to have the fish roasting over the fire before Rhali showed. Then he needed to take the time to make his decision. Rhali had not threatened his village, Badendorf. It was just a matter of time.
Probably, Silas was already the threat to his own village. He changed every night of the moon into that creature. It wouldn’t be long before the moon turned from its crescent light to dark. Then, he would not be a night creature. But during that time he was a danger to his village. He could not go back. Not now. Not until he was cured, if he was ever cured.
The next morning he closed his eyes tightly and broke the ropes. He fought against reading the note. One step at a time he dragged himself to the stream. He washed the crud from his eyes and opened them. The water broke his spell. He felt clearer than he had for awhile. He kept his back towards camp and walked towards the rocks piled up in front of the quarry. He admired the stone cuts. There had been people here a long time ago. It was time to look for help.